After the Yankees spent their offseason bringing aboard names like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran there weren't many who predicted that Brett Gardner would be their most productive position player by early July, or that there wouldn't be much of an argument about it. Just over half way through the season, Gardner's just about the only Yankee hitter who's outperforming expectations. His 2.7 fWAR is second on the club only to Masahiro Tanaka, his 121 wRC+ and .793 OPS are also second, and he's leading his teammates in batting average (.288), OBP (.359) and UZR (6.8).
In February, when Brian Cashman signed Gardner to a four-year, $52 million extension that runs from 2015 through 2018, plenty of onlookers were skeptical, myself included. After giving Ellsbury his own seven-year pact, the Yankees were locked in for over $200 million for two players with pretty similar skills - speed, strong defense and minimal power. Gardner was coming off a season that showed a bump in power stats, but also a decline in some of his traditionally strong areas. In 2013, he put up full-season career worsts in walks per plate appearance (8.5%), stolen bases (24) and swing-and-miss rate (5.3%). All that, along with his first negative UZR gave us ample cause to wonder whether guaranteeing eight figures through the age of 35 was really such a good idea.
This year, though, Gardner seems to be proving the naysayers wrong. He's found a good middle ground between his classic speedster skill set and his burgeoning power stroke. He's already matched his career high in home runs with eight, and his .146 ISO and .434 slugging percentage are also personal bests. In left field once again, he's back to the high defensive standard that he set for himself and, despite continuing to be more aggressive at the plate than in his early days, he's managing to get on base at his highest clip since 2010. From a value standpoint, Gardner's extension is looking very sweet for the Yankees. Given his current pace, he'd have gotten a whole lot more than $52 million if he'd been allowed to reach free agency this winter.
Gardner's been brought up a lot in Yankee trade rumors over the years, especially this past offseason as the team approached spring training with what looked like a glut of outfielders and gaping holes at second and third base. Some suggested swapping Gardner for young MLB-ready talent (Nick Franklin was the popular target) and others would have been happy dealing him for a declining and disgruntled vet in Brandon Phillips. The Yankees have to be thrilled right now that they didn't make either of those deals or any that may have been available to them. Though, as one of the few players on the team that actually has positive value, Gardner probably hasn't heard the last of the perpetual trade banter, especially from the growing "sell and rebuild" faction of Yankee fans.
Should the Yankees really think about selling high on Gardner in the midst of a career year? Less than two months shy of his 31st birthday, this may be as good as it gets for him. In the offseason, his value was limited as a guy in his final year of arbitration eligibility, but now he's got as many as five and a half years of team control left (that's if his 2019 club option is exercised) on what looks right now like a team-friendly deal. That's longer than what Curtis Granderson had left on his contract when the Tigers turned him into Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and others. If the Yankees do fall out of the race over the next few weeks and decide to be sellers at the deadline, Gardner's their only asset with the potential to bring back multiple top-100-type prospects. What they'd get for Hiroki Kuroda and David Robertson would be capped by their impending free agencies.
The Yankees aren't out of it, and given the ineptitude of their AL East rivals, they probably won't be on July 31st. Cashman and the front office are absolutely in love with Gardner's game and he's one of only a few homegrown players they can point to as successes from a much-beleaguered farm system. They aren't going to try and trade him - odds are they won't even discuss it, not on the 31st and not next offseason either, since the coming outfield free agent class is weak and the team already has a hole it needs to fill in right. Still, it's worth considering that while Gardner's been highly valuable in keeping the Yankees afloat this year, he's been simultaneously positioning himself as a sought-after commodity.